SERMON Corpus Christi
By Pastor Leo E. Longan
I am not a betting man, but I think it would be a sure bet that we at Trinity are the only Lutheran church in North America celebrating the feast of Corpus Christi this morning. There will be many Catholics and a fair number of Anglicans on board, but given Luther’s opinion of the festival, it hasn’t gotten too much play among us Lutherans. More on that in a minute.
The point of the day is a good one, though: we need a day to talk about the Sacrament of Holy Communion that is not Maundy Thursday. We are occupied with other matters on that terrible night: Meanwhile the communion is the beating heart of our life together as a church, week in and week out, and we need space to cherish it.
I am not alone in feeling this way. A pious Belgian nun named Juliana of Liege worked for forty years to establish a festival dedicated to the Sacrament. The feast of Corpus Christi was finally instituted by Pope Urban IV in the year 1264., and by the high middle ages had become wildly popular for the wrong reasons. The story actually has a lot in common with Mother’s Day: conceived and promoted by a vigorous and determined woman, and later corrupted to become something wildly different. Mother’s Day was hijacked by greeting card companies and florists; Corpus Christi became a public circus, in which the Sacrament was paraded through the streets and worshipped like an idol, a tradition that continues today in many places around the world.
Luther was outraged by the public spectacle it had become. He wrote in one of his sermons:
“I am to no festival more hostile than this one, because it is the most shameful festival. At no festival are God and his Christ more blasphemed than on this day and particularly by the procession. For then people are treating the Blessed Sacrament with such ignominy that it becomes play-acting and is just vain idolatry. With its cosmetics and false holiness it conflicts with Christ’s establishment. He never commanded us to carry on like this.”
And of course, Luther was absolutely right. He made it his urgent pastoral business to take down the prevalent theology of the sacrament as a “magic cookie” to be worshipped and adored, but very seldom actually eaten. Like others before him, Luther rejected as magical thinking the Roman Catholic doctrine that, at the instant when the words of institution are spoken, Hoc est enim corpus meum (the origin of the phrase Hocus Pocus) the bread ceases to be bread and becomes instead the physical, fleshly body of Jesus Christ.
Even as he pulled the magic out of it, however, Luther held passionately to the promise of Christ, this is my body, and taught with great vigor and clarity what Lutherans still teach and confess about the sacrament. In the Small Catechism, designed to be memorized by everyone, Luther writes: What is the Sacrament of the Altar ? It is the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ himself for us Christians to eat and to drink.
That one sentence is the key to our teaching about the Sacrament: According to his promise, Christ truly gives his body and blood to us to eat and drink. It is not a magic trick, it is a precious gift that operates within the awesome mystery of faith, whereby God makes us his own now and forever. How that unfolds is the experience of a lifetime and beyond. But in the meantime, we believe what Jesus says to us: Take and eat. This is my body given for you and this cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sin.
For Luther, probably the most important words Jesus speaks here are given for you. The sacrament is not about what happens to the groceries on the altar; the sacrament is about what happens to you and to me when we eat and drink as Christ commands. The very next thing Luther says in the Catechism is this: The words “given for you” and “shed for you for the forgiveness of sin” show us that forgiveness of sin, life and salvation are given to us in the sacrament. What God is doing in the sacrament is taking our whole lives, past present and future into his heart and re-making us, re-forming us for his kingdom. Forgiveness of sins is God’s answer to our past. Life – the life we live now, in its amazing fullness – is God’s gift us to in the present moment. Salvation is the future God has planned for us. Take it all together: when we come to the altar to eat and drink the body and blood of Christ according to his gift and promise, we are like a baby at its mother’s breast: we are safe and whole and loved. How much does God love us? Jesus says (John 6:54-56): “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day. For my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
And this is what we get to do every week when we gather: to be washed and fed and loved, to take into our bodies and souls the magnificent spiritual nourishment that God offers to us in his own body. Not by magic, but inside the great and wonderful and still-unfolding mystery that is our salvation.
Jesus gave us the sacrament on the last night of his life, but it is not by any means his last gift to us. On the contrary, the Holy Communion is the means of grace, by which God continues to bless us and heal us and love us. It is the beating heart of our life together as a church. There’s not much to it: it’s simple, even humble: a wafer, a few drops of wine. It takes mere seconds to consume. Yet this sacrament, in its quiet way, is an avalanche of grace, a tsunami of divine love.
So let’s take it to the streets. Not in a gold monstrance under a canopy with little girls throwing rose petals as they will do today in Rome. But let’s take it with us when we walk out of here today, let it glow from within our hearts, let’s display it in the love and generosity and grace which we show to others today. God is good. God is lifting our burdens and preparing us for eternal life. God does this for us week in and week out, and in fact every moment we feed on him in our hearts by faith and with thanksgiving.
That’s worth celebrating. That’s worth a special day. So: thank you, Juliana of Liege. You gave us something we needed.
Let us pray.